Established in 2006 in the wake of the France-China Cross-Years, the Sino-French Croisements Festival is now the largest foreign cultural festival in China. It is in this context that we present the exhibition “Back to Simple Radical Gestures: Within and around the Supports/Surfaces Movement”. Designed by the Abbey Saint-André de Meymac Art Centre and curators Caroline Bissiet and Jean-Paul Blanchet, it uses 90 works to trace the meteoric rise and radical nature of this artistic movement that lasted from 1969 to 1974.
From the appearance of Claude Viallat's famous bean shapes, to the exhibition “New Painting in France – Practices / Theories” at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Saint-Étienne in 1974 and the official dissolution of the group, every aspect of the exhibition strives to embody the group’s independence of mind, down to its staging.
A French exhibition in China
While the legacy of the Supports/Surfaces movement is no doubt found among the French post-avant-garde, this invitation from the Tsinsghua University Art Museum demonstrates the growing interest of a young generation of foreign artists in this movement, which has long remained confined to the national sphere.
Opened in 2016, the Beijing museum has a collection of 13,000 Chinese works of art. Every year, it hosts themed international exhibitions in a 9,000 m2 dedicated space. Its programming prioritises long time periods, with exhibitions such as “In dialogue with Leonardo da Vinci / The 4th international Art & Science exhibition” or “From Monet to Soulages: Pathways of Modern Western Painting (1800-1980)”.
From May 21st to August 25th, 2019, it invited the Abbey Saint-André de Meymac Art Centre to take its educational and scientific aims of mediating between works of art and the public beyond its own walls. Recognised by the Ministry of Culture in 1986 and supported by the DRAC Nouvelle-Aquitaine, the Nouvelle-Aquitaine Region, the Corrèze Department, the City of Meymac and Haute-Corrèze Communauté, the Centre for Contemporary Art offers a rich calendar featuring both emerging and internationally renowned artists, including thematic and solo exhibitions. In this instance for example, an exhibition devoted to the Supports/Surfaces movement.
Deconstructing the pictorial space
It is the late 1960s. A group of artists, mainly from the South of France, seeks to free painting from the tyranny of its canvas and to detach themselves from the domination of abstract expressionism, through a project of deconstruction of the pictorial space with its origins in the early 20th century.
Close to members of Fluxus, New Realism, BMPT and Arte Povera, most of these artists have met at the Fine Arts Schools of Paris, Nice and Montpellier. Vincent Bioulès, Marc Devade, Daniel Dezeuze, Patrick Saytour, André Valensi and Claude Viallat, gathered together under the name "Supports/Surfaces", present their first official exhibition at the City of Paris Museum of Conteporary Art in 1970. Over the course of their next three exhibitions which will be produced under this name, they will be joined by André-Pierre Arnal, Louis Cane, Noël Dolla, Toni Grand, Jean-Pierre Pincemin and Bernard Pagès. Although external to the movement, they will also be joined by artists Pierre Burraglio, Christian Jaccard and Jean-Michel Meurice, who contributed to their dissemination and their research. The group begins to fall apart in 1972 and fully disbands in 1974, ending the avant-garde period which had begun in the 1960s.
While it is unique both in its power and its brief nature, this radical and committed movement would go on to permanently influence artistic practices in France. Having decided to bring painting back to reality by refusing all illusion, Supports/Surfaces call into question the traditional pictorial mediums and methods. By thus separating the canvas from its frame, the distinction between the medium (“support”) and the surface is destroyed. The medium becomes the surface, the surface becomes the medium.
Linking gesture to colour
For the sake of simplicity the artists use the canvas freely, without primer, leaving everything up to the brush. They relinquish any subjectivity, renouncing the figurative in favour of non-signifying forms. Using many techniques, they link gesture to the colour, recalling the Matisse's cut-outs and echoing the abstract American expressionism of Pollock, Rothko and de Kooning: prints for Viallat, stamps for Cane and Pincemin, colour blocks for Devade and Bioulès, dip-dying for Dolla and even paper-folding for Cane and Valensi.
Combining empirical practices, minimalist rigour and concepts, this painting concentrates on the application of colour and filling up or soaking the supporting material so that it becomes the subject. This sense of material pushed to the extreme would lead them to question traditional methods of display and to redefine the fundamental components of the work of art.
A social and deconsecrated art
Without ever announcing the arrival of “the end of art”, the practices and experiments of Supports/Surfaces gradually moved towards a more theoretical reflection. Broadly influenced by Marxist ideas in an era shaped by the great social changes of May 68, these artists redefined the social functions of art by liberating the gaze.
Placing the artist at the same level as the craftsman, they saw their pieces as the fruit of work that is defined by its own materiality. This work must be immediately comprehensible, legible and accessible to all, revealing itself for what it is to the point of unveiling its process of creation, but also by being easily exhibited and transported, going so far as to invest in public spaces.
Although they deconsecrated the work of art itself they did not reject its market value, however they managed to avoid speculation by creating large-format works out of sometimes mediocre and fragile materials. With this economy of materials, gestures and representation, Supports/Surfaces aspired not only to change the way people saw art, but also to have this approach overflow into life in general, leading people towards greater simplicity.
The exhibition “Back to Simple Radical Gestures: Within and around the Supports/Surfaces Movement” is presented from 21st May to 25th August 2019 at the Tsinsghua University Art Museum.
The project is supported by the Institut français within the framework of its agreement with the City of Saint-Etienne.
The Institut français partners with 21 local authorities to develop international artistic exchanges.
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